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INTRODUCTORY TO THE
STUDY OF POETRY
REV. H. C. BEECHING M.A.
LATE CLARK LECTURER AT TRINITY COLLEGE, CAMBRIDGE,
PROFESSOR OF PASTORAL THEOLOGY AT KING'S COLLEGE, LONDON,
CHAPLAIN TO THE HON. SOC. OF LINCOLN'S INN.
AT THE UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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PRINTED BY J. AND C. F. CLAY,
AT THE UNIVERSITY PRESS.
PASSION AND IMAGINATION
THE unsatisfactoriness of definitions of poetry
arises usually from one or other of two causes.
If the definition is that of a critic, it is the
resultant of a long analytical process, and there-
fore not very intelligible apart from the process
by which it has been arrived at; if it is the
definition of a poet, it is certain to contain that
element of poetry which it professes to explain.
Nevertheless, the most helpful aper$us into poetry
are those which the poets themselves have given
us, and of them all none is more helpful than
that inspired parenthesis in which Milton one
day summed up its characteristics as "simple,
sensuous, and passionate."
2 Passion and Imagination in Poetry.
We may presume that by his first epithet
Milton intended that simplicity which is another
name for sincerity. He meant that a poet must
look at the world frankly and with open eyes ;
with the spirit, though with more than the
wisdom, of a child. We sometimes express
another side of the same truth by saying that
poetry is " universal," meaning that it cares
nothing for superficial and transient fashions,
but is interested only " in man, in nature, and
in human life," in their permanent elements.
This first epithet seems to fix beyond dispute
an indispensable quality of all poetry. If a
writer is insincere, or if he is conventional and
fashionable, we are sure, whatever his airs and
graces, that he is no poet. By " sensuous " it
is probable that Milton meant what, in more
technical language, we should describe as " con-
crete." Poetry deals with things, and it deals
with people ; it sings of birds and flowers and
stars ; it sings of the wrath of Achilles, the
wanderings of Ulysses and ^Eneas, the woes of
Passion and Imagination in Poetry. 3
King CEdipus, the problems of Brutus and
Hamlet ; whatever be the thought or the emo-
tion it is concerned with, it is concerned with
them as operating on a particular occasion ; it
has no concern with the intellect or the emotions
or the will in abstraction from this or that wise
or passionate or wilful person 1 . By his third
epithet Milton, as most will agree, touched, or
almost touched, the heart of the matter. We
all conceive prose to be an adequate vehicle for
our level feelings, but as soon as we are deeply
moved and wish to express our emotion we
instinctively turn to the poets. Wordsworth is
at one with Milton in fixing upon passion as
1 The tradition of this concreteness was not lost even in the
eighteenth century. Poets, living in a time of abstract thought,
and feeling under the necessity of handling abstractions, hit upon
the device of personifying them, with the result that from the
pages of Dodsley's Miscellany every faculty of the mind and every
operation of every science looks out at one with a capital letter,
a fashion happily parodied in the famous line :
" Inoculation, heavenly maid, descend."
Gray is not untouched with the malady, though, on the whole,
he represents a reaction back to the richness of the concrete,
the " pomp and prodigality " of Shakespeare and Milton.
4 Passion and Imagination in Poetry.
of the essence of poetry, which he in one place
defines as " the spontaneous overflow of power-
ful feelings." It does not matter for poetry
what the emotion is that overflows ; it may be
love or hate, pity or fear, awe or indignation, joy
or sorrow ; what matters for poetry is that some
passion there should be, for some particular
object, and that it should be sincerely and deeply
Essential, however, as passion is, so that
where there is no passion there can be no
poetry, in saying passion we have not said the
last word. Anyone may prove this to himself
by a simple reminiscence. He may at some
time have been in love, for, according to Pat-
more, " Love wakes men once a lifetime each " ;
and, perhaps, in a mood of exaltation he may
have taken pen and paper for a sonnet to his
mistress' eyebrow ; but the poetry did not come ;
or, if something came, in a calmer mood he
recognized that it was not poetry. Or we may
illustrate from other passions. At the Queen's
Passion and Imagination in Poetry. 5
Jubilee a few years since we were all passionately
loyal, and the morning newspapers vied with
each other in producing odes ; but no one could
mistake any one of them for poetry. Or, the
other day, again, when the Rennes verdict was
announced, the intelligence of England was
roused to a passion of indignation. I took up
my weekly gazette the next Saturday morning
and found that indignation had made a good
many verses, in none of which was there a tinc-
ture of poetry. There was much cursing and
swearing, and appealing to Heaven for ven-
geance ; but the point of view was merely that
of "the man in the street."
These simple examples will suffice to show
that poetry requires a manner of viewing things
which is not that of the average man, but is
individual to the poet ; it requires, in a word,
genius. One could hardly expect Milton to
point this out ; having genius himself he would
assume that everyone else had genius ; he would
assume that we all had the power of looking at
6 Passion and Imagination in Poetry.
the world not only frankly but freshly, because
he would not understand any other way of
looking at it. Now, it is this fresh outlook and
insight, this power of viewing things and people
out of the associations in which the rest of man-
kind habitually view them, that is the root of
the whole matter. In the world of nature we
find the poets moved even to passion by objects
that we hardly notice, or from long familiarity
have come to ignore. Their strong emotion
arises from their fresh vision. By means of that
fresh vision the world never ceases to be an in-
teresting place to them.
" By the murmur of a spring,
Or the least bough's rustling,
By a daisy whose leaves spread
Shut when Titan goes to bed,
Or a shady bush or tree,
She could more infuse in me
Than all Nature's beauties can
In some other wiser man."
So sang Wither of the Poetic Muse ; and
Blake expresses the same truth in his inspired
Passion and Imagination in Poetry. 7
"What to others a trifle appears
Fills me full of smiles and tears."
The converse of the proposition also holds true :
what to others may appear facts of the highest
importance, may to the poet appear trifles.
Similarly in the world of men we find the poets
as much interested in the least as in the greatest,
and we find them unconcerned by many of the
distinctions which to mankind in general appear
vital. We find, for example, Andrew Marvell
introducing into his panegyric of Oliver Pro-
tector a picture of King Charles at his execution,
which embalms the secret of all the cavalier
loyalty, and is to-day the oftenest quoted pas-
sage of his poem.
The poet's subjects, then, are borrowed from
any quarter in the whole range of nature and
human experience; "the world is all before him
where to choose"; anything that excites any
deep emotion in him is a fit topic for his verse,
and it is our privilege for the moment, so far
as that one experience is concerned, to look
8 Passion and Imagination in Poetry.
through his eyes. In this way the poets interpret
the world to us. They also interpret us to our-
selves. They make adventurous voyages into
hitherto unsounded seas of the human spirit,
and bring us word of their discoveries. And
what they thus win becomes an inalienable
possession to the race ; the boundaries of hu-
manity are pushed back. This power of inter-
preting the world and human life is sometimes
spoken of as an idealizing faculty, and no ex-
ception can be taken to the term so long as
it is not explained to mean that the poet tricks
up what he sees in false lights in order to please
us. For anyone who considers the best poetry,
whether about the universe or man's heart,
and it is only the best that must determine
the genus will admit that, so far as he has
trusted himself to it, it has convinced him of
its entire veracity. It is idealized only in the
sense that a landscape is idealized by the re-
moval of the accidental and commonplace details,
which sufficed to blind others to the beauty that
Passion and Imagination in Poetry. 9
the painter distinguished. The artist, poet or
painter, sees the light that never was on sea or
land until he saw it ; but when he has once seen
it and shown it us, we can all see that it is there,
and is not merely a figment of his fancy. This
mode of viewing things, which by its freshness
reveals, or interprets, or idealizes, is what is meant
by Poetical Imagination.
But now that that most terrifying of tech-
nical terms has been mentioned, it may be well
to make a short summary of the various senses
in which the word is habitually employed, in
order to observe what all, or any, of them have
in common, and how they connect one with
(a) When a psychologist speaks of imagi-
nation he is not thinking of poetry ; he means
by the word the power of summoning again
before the mind's eye vivid images of what has
been once seen. He bids us look carefully at
our breakfast-table, and then, closing our eyes,
notice how much of it we can recall, how clear
io Passion and Imagination in Poetry.
or dim an image. Whether skill in this memory-
picturing has any link with poetical imagination
it would be hard to say ; certainly to no one
would a power of vividly recalling images be
of greater service. The faculty seems to be
entirely distinct from the power of attention
and close observation.
(b) A more familiar usage of the word is
that which makes it almost a synonym for
sympathy the power of projecting self into
the circumstances of others. We know to our
cost that many men and women are sadly to
seek in this faculty, and it seems to be no
especial prerogative of poets, though Shelley
thought so. He speaks of the poet as
" A nerve o'er which do creep
The else unfelt oppressions of the earth."
And in his prose essay he says : "A man to
be greatly good must imagine intensely and
comprehensively ; he must put himself in the
place of another, and of many others ; the
pains and pleasures of his species must become
Passion and Imagination in Poetry. 1 1
his own"; and he continues, "The great instru-
ment of moral good is imagination, and poetry
administers to the effect by acting upon the
cause" (Essays, I. 16). Shelley in this passage
is theorizing too much from his own personal
feelings ; for it has often been remarked that
poets have been singularly lacking in imagina-
tion of this moral sort, and some have been
conspicuous for an intense selfishness in their
(c) But the word is also used not of moral,
but of intellectual, sympathy ; a power of appre-
ciating, by an act of intuition, the characteristic
qualities of things and people so as to be able
to set out a train of consequences. A celebrated
novelist was once congratulated upon the ad-
mirable drawing in one of her books of a
particular school of Dissenters, and she was
asked what opportunities she had enjoyed of
studying them. Her reply was that she had
once caught sight of a group of them through
a half-opened door as she mounted a staircase.
12 Passion and Imagination in Poetry.
That is no doubt an extreme case, but it is all
the more useful as an illustration. It helps us
to realize how potent a faculty is the endow-
ment of the dramatist, which can pierce through
human appearance to its essential qualities, can
conceive by a sure instinct how, in given circum-
stances, the given character must act, and can
represent it to us, because it is vivid to him, in
all the verisimilitude of essential detail. Such
imagination is plainly one large and special side
of the faculty of seeing things out of their
commonplace associations. As a branch of the
same head would rank the still rarer power of
conceiving types of character, that for certain
reasons have no actual existence in the world
we know, such types as Shakespeare's Ariel and
Caliban and Puck.
(d) The word imagination is also used of
a faculty which may at first sight seem the
opposite of this a faculty of seeing people and
objects not as they are in themselves, but
coloured by the atmosphere of joy or gloom
Passion and Imagination in Poetry. 13
through which they are seen. The truth, how-
ever, probably is that nothing at all is, or ever
can be, seen out of some atmosphere, a thing
in itself being merely an abstraction ; but the
greater a poet is, the more various are his moods,
while with lesser men a particular mood may
cover all the objects in their poetical world.
(e) Again, the word has a narrower and
more technical sense ; namely, the power of
detecting resemblances in nature for the purpose
of poetical illustration. This use of the term
is not merely freakish, but connects with that
broader and more fundamental sense to which
I have so many times referred, the power and
habit of seeing the " common things that round
us lie" out of their commonplace associations,
of seeing them in more subtle and original
associations. For it is the power of bringing
together two objects or events that the ordinary
person would never dream of connecting, but in
which the poet's eye has detected similarity, and
which he therefore places side by side so that
14 Passion and Imagination in Poetry.
one may throw light upon the other. Our
thinking, it will be admitted, is largely asso-
ciational ; one thing recalls another ; but it is
the prerogative of poets that the tracks between
idea and idea in their minds are not those of
common trade. Recur for a moment to Wither's
reference to a daisy. We know beforehand
what a daisy will suggest to a child, what to
a gardener, what to a botanist; we do not know
beforehand what it will suggest to a poet. It
may suggest, as it did to Chaucer, a crowned
"A fret of gold she hadde next her hair,
And upon that a white corown she bare
With flourouns smalle, and (I shall not lie)
For all the world right as a daisy
Ycrowned is with white leaves light,
So were the flourouns of her corown white."
How utterly different from this is the vision
of Burns ! To him the daisy is the type of
humble cheerfulness, sweet neighbour and meet
companion of the humble and cheerful lark.
How different, again, was the feeling it in-
Passion and Imagination in Poetry. 15
spired in Wordsworth ! The point to strike
home to him was the touch of kinship between
the simplest flower and man in the fact that
both are alive :
" Sweet silent creature
That breath'st with me in sun and air."
Imagination, used in this restricted sense of
the interpretation of phenomena by comparison,
is often contrasted with a weaker form of itself
to which the name of Fancy is given. The
distinction was introduced into these islands
by Coleridge, from whom it was borrowed by
Wordsworth ; it was then popularized by Leigh
Hunt and afterwards by Ruskin. It has played
in the last half century so prominent a part
in the criticism of poetry, that it is perhaps
worth while to look it for once fairly in the
face. Coleridge was always promising to give
a disquisition upon Poetical Imagination, but
he never kept his word ; he did, however, what
was almost better ; in the Biographia Literaria
he illustrated his meaning from some passages
1 6 Passion and Imagination in Poetry.
in his friend's poems ; and we gather from his
comments that he did not at all mean Imagi-
nation to be distinguished from Fancy as the
perception of deeper from that of more super-
ficial resemblances ; he wished the term Fancy
to be kept for the use of poetical imagery of all
kinds, and the term Imagination to be used of
the poet's faculty as a creative artist. He speaks
of it as a unifying power, bringing together
whatever will help his purpose, and rejecting
all that is impertinent and unessential. He
speaks of it also as a vivifying power, turning
"bodies to spirits by sublimation strange." That
is to say he uses Imagination not so much of
a quality of the poet's mind as of an artistic
power which he exercises, the power of im-
posing living form upon dead matter, he calls
it in the Ode to Dejection " my shaping spirit
of imagination"; but it is not hard to see
that this unifying and vitalizing power depends
upon what is the characteristic essence of imagi-
nation, the unanalyzable power of seeing things
Passion and Imagination in Poetry. 17
freshly and in new and harmonious associations.
The idea must precede the execution, and it is
a small matter whether the term Imagination
be employed of the idea or the embodiment.
Between Imagination and Fancy, therefore, as
Coleridge conceived them, there could be no
The trouble began with Wordsworth. By
Imagination, as by Fancy, Wordsworth prac-
tically means the use of poetical imagery ; but
he ascribes to the higher faculty the images
which occur to the poet not in his superficial
moods, but under the influence of deeper emo-
tion 1 . Leigh Hunt preserved and illustrated
this distinction from a wide range of poets.
1 Characteristically Wordsworth, in his celebrated preface,
illustrated what he meant by Imagination, not from his friend's
poetry, but his own. Upon the line " Over his own sweet voice
the stock-dove broods," he thus comments : " The stock-dove is
said to coo, a sound well imitating the note of the bird ; but by
the intervention of the metaphor broods, the affections are called
in by the imagination to assist in marking the manner in which
the bird reiterates and prolongs her soft note, as if herself de-
lighting to listen to it, and participatory of a still and quiet
satisfaction, like that which may be supposed inseparable from
the continuous process of incubation."
1 8 Passion and Imagination in Poetry.
Mr Ruskin, in the second volume of Modern
Painters (p. 163), turned aside from an elaborate
disquisition upon Imagination in painting to
speak of poetry. " The Fancy," he says, " sees
the outside, and so is able to give a portrait
of the outside, clear, brilliant, and full of detail ;
the Imagination sees the heart and inner nature,
and makes them felt, but is often obscure,
mysterious, and interrupted in its giving of
outer detail." And then follows a remarkable
parallel between the flower passage in Lycidas
and that in the Winter's Tale, greatly to the
disadvantage of the former.
It will be remembered that the passage
from Lycidas is printed with marginal notes,
as follows :
"Bring the rathe primrose that
forsaken dies, Imagination.
The tufted crow-toe, and pale
The white pink, and the pansy
freaked with jet, Fancy.
The glowing violet, Imagination.
The musk-rose, and the well-
attii-'d woodbine, Fancy and -vulgar.
Passion and Imagination in Poetry. 19
With cowslips wan that hang
the pensive head, Imagination.
And every flower that sad em-
broidery wears." Mixed.
Then follows the passage from the Winter's
" O Proserpina,
For the flowers now, that, frighted, thou let'st fall
From Dis's waggon ! daffodils,
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty ; violets, dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes,
Or Cytherea's breath ; pale primroses,
That die unmarried, ere they can behold
Bright Phoebus in his strength, a malady
Most incident to maids."
And then comes this criticism :
" Observe how the imagination in these last lines goes
into the very inmost soul of every flower, after having
touched them all at first with that heavenly timidness,
the shadow of Proserpine's, and gilded them with celestial
gathering, and never stops on their spots or their bodily
shape ; while Milton sticks in the stains upon them and
puts us off with that unhappy freak of jet in the very
flower that, without this bit of paper-staining, would have
been the most precious to us of all. ' There is pansies,
that's for thoughts.' "
I do not know whether this comparison has
ever been the subject of adverse comment : I
have often heard it praised. To me, I confess,
2o Passion and Imagination in Poetry.
it seems a compendium of all the faults that
a critic of poetry should avoid : waywardness,
preciosity, inattention, and the uncritical use of
critical labels. In the first place the critic has
ignored what is of the first consequence, the
motive of the two pieces, and has treated them
as parallel flower-passages from a volume of
elegant extracts ; whereas no criticism can be to
the point that does not recognize that Milton's
flowers are being gathered for a funeral, and
Shakespeare's are not to be gathered at all ;
they are visionary spring flowers, seen in glory
through the autumn haze. Without going at
length through each passage it is worth noticing
that Shakespeare's lines about the primrose are
open to precisely the same censure, no more
and no less, as Mr Ruskin accords to Milton's
pansy. The epithet "pale" is very far from
" going into the very inmost soul " of the prim-
rose, which is a hardy flower, and not in the
least anaemic ; it " sticks in the stains " upon
the surface as much as the "freaked with jet";
Passion and Imagination in Poetry. 2 1
and this, again, so far from being " unhappy,"
gives the reason why the pansy was chosen for
the hearse among the flowers that "sad em-
broidery wear." A second point to notice con-
cerns the lines that are marked " nugatory."
Both Shakespeare and Milton had the instinct
to see that just as, on the one hand, a flower-
passage must not be a mere catalogue, so, on
the other, each item must not be unduly em-
phasized. And so we find that, while Milton
has his " tufted crow-toe and pale jessamine,"
and his " well-attir'd woodbine " to make up the
bunch, Shakespeare also has his
" Bold oxlips, and
The crown-imperial, lilies of all kinds,
The flower-de-luce being one ! "
a "nugatory" passage which Mr Ruskin omits
from his quotation. So much, then, for the
contrast of Imagination and Fancy, which
critics might now be content to let die.
In resuming what has been said about the
two great characteristics of the poetical mind,
22 Passion and Imagination in Poetry.
its passion and its imagination, it may be useful
to illustrate from the picture that our great
dramatist has drawn of the poetical character
in the person of Macbeth. Macbeth, indeed,
was a poet without a conscience ; but that cir-
cumstance is to the advantage of our illustration,
since we shall not be able to confuse his morality
with his poetry. There are several points that
may be noticed.
1. First, though on this much stress must
not be laid, we observe Macbeth's power of
summoning up, and vividly objectifying im-
pressions of sense. He sees an air-drawn
dagger. He hears a voice say, " Sleep no
2. Secondly, and this is fundamental, we
remark the passionate intensity with which he
realizes whatever comes before him, his own
states of mind, or events that happen, and sees
them in all their attendant circumstances and
consequences. No fact that at all interests him
remains a barren fact to him, and most facts
Passion and Imagination in Poetry. 23
do interest him. When he is contemplating the
death of Duncan he appreciates thoroughly and
entirely all that is involved in that death :
" He's here in double trust :
First, as I am his kinsman, and his subject,
Strong both against the deed ; then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off."
So he goes from point to point, realizing as
he goes. Even more striking is the way in
which he is moved after the murder by Duncan's
untroubled condition, thoroughly appreciating
" Duncan is in his grave ;
After life's fitful fever, he sleeps well ;
Treason has done his worst : nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
Can touch him further ! "
Or consider the passage at the end of the play,
where he is contemplating his own deserted
" I have liv'd long enough ; my way of life
Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
24 Passion and Imagination in Poetry.
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops' of friends,
I must not look to have ; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud, but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, but dare not."
Especially characteristic here of the poet seems
to me the pause on the idea of curses, to realize
them, before going further, " curses, not loud, but
3. In the third place, we remark that, as
Macbeth realizes with such vividness and such
emotion the qualities of everything that appeals
to him, so one thing is always suggesting another
with similar qualities :
" Then comes my fit again ; I had else been perfect ;
Whole as the marble, founded as the rock,
As broad and general as the casing air ;
But now I am cabin'd. cribb'd, confined."
When the ghostly voice that he hears, the echo
of his own imaginative mind, suggests to him
the terrible thought that he has murdered not
the king only, but Sleep, the greatest friend of
man, he is at once absorbed in the thought of
all the wonder and mystery of sleep, which he
Passion and Imagination in Poetry. 25
draws out into a long string of images ; for-
getting all about the business he had been
engaged in, and the bloody daggers in his hand,
until his practical wife in blank amazement
breaks in with, " What do you mean ? " No one,
again, is likely to forget the desolate images
under which he sums up his idea of the worth-
lessness and meaninglessness of human life :
" Life's but a walking shadow ; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is seen no more : it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
4. I would point out, further, as a frequent
trait of the poetic nature, Macbeth's simplicity ;
shown partly by his interest in his own moods ;
for example, in such sayings as " False face
must hide what the false heart doth know " ;
more curiously in his speculation why he could
not say "Amen " when the groom he was about
to murder said, "God bless us"; most curiously
in his irritation at ghost-walking:
" The times have been
That, when the brains were out, the man would die,
26 Passion and Imagination in Poetry.
And there an end ; but now they rise again,
With twenty mortal murders on their crowns,
And push us from our stools ; this is more strange
Than such a murder is."
5. Finally, though in this I am trespassing
on a subject which I hope to discuss in a second
lecture, we cannot but observe Macbeth's extra-
ordinary talent for expression. I will give but
one instance. Shakespeare, whether by design
or chance, has reserved for him what is, perhaps,
the most remarkable presentment in literature of
the phenomenon of falling night
" Light thickens,"
an expression which gives not only the fact of
growing darkness, but also its qualities.
The picture of the poetical nature that
Shakespeare has given us in Macbeth is con-
siderably heightened if by the side of it we add
for contrast his Richard II. Without working
out the parallel in any detail, it will be enough
to call attention to two points. In the first
place, Richard has no imagination in the sense
which we have seen reason to give to that term ;
Passion and Imagination in Poetry. 27
he has no intuition into the scope and meaning
and consequences of human actions. Compare,
for instance, with Macbeth's picture of old age,
Richard's picture of a dethroned king :
" I'll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage ;
My gay apparel for an almsman's gown,
My figured goblets for a dish of wood ;
My sceptre for a palmer's walking staff,
My subjects for a pair of carved saints ;
And my large kingdom for a little grave," &c.
The points in the picture which rouse Richard's
emotion, and which he sets out before us, are
all merely superficial ; never once does he touch
the real heart of the matter. The other notice-
able thing is that Richard is much less interested
in persons or events than in his feelings about
them, and then only in such as are lamentable;
and perhaps, it would be true to add, less in the
lamentable feelings than in the pathetic language
in which they can be expressed. He " hammers
out " a simile as though it was an end in itself,
and is moved by a curious phrase so as almost
to forget his troubles. In the coronation scene,
28 Passion and Imagination in Poetry.
after Richard has cast down the looking-glass
with the words,
" How soon my sorrow hath destroyed my face,"
Bolingbroke, with all a practical man's contempt
of play-acting and rhetoric, satirically replies :
" The shadow of your sorrow hath destroyed
The shadow of your face,"
whereupon Richard is at once arrested :
" Say that again !
The shadow of my sorrow ! ha ! let's see ! "
Could there be a more vivid portrait of the
" minor poet " or sentimentalist ?
EXPRESSION IN POETRY.
IN the foregoing lecture I ventured an attempt
to investigate the constant qualities of the
poetical mind ; in this I wish to consider what
are, speaking generally, the means at the poet's
disposal for conveying his passion and his
imaginative vision to his hearers. For of poets,
as of the rest of us, it may be said that
"if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, 'twere all alike
As if we had them not."
A "mute" Milton would certainly be "inglori-
ous"; he would also be useless: would he be
conceivable ? Undoubtedly we can distinguish
in thought the divine vision from the divine
faculty which gives it expression, but is this
30 Expression in Poetry.
distinction anything more than logical ? May
not the truth be that a poet expresses more
than the rest of the world because he sees
more, and like the rest of the world can ex-
press up to the limit of his vision ? Our tutors
and governors, when we were children, used to
receive with well-grounded suspicion our not
infrequent excuse for muteness, " I know, but
I can't explain"; and it is equally probable
that in poets the vision brings its own inter-
pretative faculty. It is beyond dispute that
the poets who have had the finest things to
say are those who have said them most finely.
If we take those passages which Matthew Arnold
once suggested as touchstones of high poetic
quality, and attempt to distinguish in them what
is form from what is substance, we shall find the
" Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship boy's eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude, imperious surge? ..."
Is there here one word not necessary for the
Expression in Poetry. 31
picture it presents, one epithet we could obelize
as inserted in the interests of mere style ?
"High" is not enough without "giddy," be-
cause the poet wishes to suggest the incredi-
bleness, from a landsman's point of view, of
sleep under such conditions ; " rude " and " im-
perious " are both required to suggest the power
of sleep which can ignore so savage a tyrant,
nay, use him for her purposes, for it is the
tossing that rocks the boy to sleep. We may
then lay it down that, just as when we have
reached our maturity and have something to
say, the contents of our mind are, as a matter
of fact, conveyed into our language with no
appreciable loss, so that what we say is a
faithful transcription of what we think, and our
friends are seldom at a loss for our meaning ;
so the poet's mood, by an even surer instinct,
chooses for itself language which effectually
conveys his passion or imaginative vision.
The mystery in the relation of poetical vision
to poetical expression is the prime mystery of
32 Expression in Poetry.
all human speech ; it is a mystery, and we
cannot get behind it ; but it is not greater in
the case of poets than with ordinary men and
women. The great difference, from which all
else depends, lies behind expression, in the
texture of the poet's thought and feeling. I
know that it is the fashion of the moment to
make more of the distinction between artist
and amateur than of that between poet and
poetaster. I am, however, not denying that
the poet is an artist. The instinct I speak of
is an artistic instinct. Nor would I deny that
every poet must serve an apprenticeship to his
art, and improve by practice his gift of ex-
pression. It is to be hoped that even those
of us who talk prose improve by practice. My
contention is merely that when the poem is
written and before us, it will take rank, suppos-
ing it to be a true poem, by the thing said, and
that it will be found impossible to distinguish
the substance from the form. A very simple
consideration will show the truth of this position.
Expression in Poetry. 33
Why is it that the Idylls of the King and the
In Memoriam contain so many passages that
the world will quite willingly let die ? If the
chief thing in poetry were the style, one part
of these poems would be as good as another,
for the style is uniform throughout. The answer,
in all such cases, is that " soul is form and doth
the body make." What is wanting in the weak
places of these great poems is the soul, the
poetic vision and enthusiasm, the absence of
which no style can compensate.
That being premised, we may go on to con-
sider the most general means which the poet
does, as a matter of fact, employ to convey to
us his emotion.
i. Poetry is essentially passionate, and its
passion requires a heightened mode of ex-
pression. In our literature this is supplied by
metre. At its lowest, metre is, what Coleridge
called it, " a stimulant of the attention." At
the very least, it cuts off what is said from
ordinary surroundings and raises it to an ideal
34 Expression in Poetry.
plane ; so that if what is said in metre be
commonplace, its commonplaceness becomes at
once more apparent. Hence bad verse is more
intolerable than bad prose. But further, metre
being not only rhythm but regulated rhythm,
it is excellently adapted as a medium for poetry,
which is not only emotion but, as Wordsworth
said, "recollected emotion"; not wild passion,
but passion conceived of as something in itself
precious, which the poet wishes to impart to
others. The poet desires to rouse not any
emotion, but some one emotion in particular.
Hence various emotions find their fit expression
in appropriate metres. It is not by idle chance
or mere caprice that Paradise Lost is written
in iambic verse and Shelley's Ode to a Skylark
in trochaics. Even in metres which appear to
be least bound by rule, such as the choruses
in Samson Agonistes, it will be found on in-
vestigation that a reason underlies the apparent
vagary. It is with these rhythms as with the
wheels in Ezekiel's vision : " To the place
Expression in Poetry. 35
whither the head looked they followed it, for
the spirit of a living creature was in them."
But although every poem must be written
not in rhythm only, but in metre, it is possible
while preserving the framework of metre to vary
the rhythm by changes in pause and accent.
Hood's Eugene Aram and Rossetti's Blessed
Damosel are written in the same metre, but the
differences in rhythm are so great that the one
poem never for a moment suggests the other.
Similarly Tennyson's blank verse does not re-
call Milton's. And within the same poem a
writer will vary his rhythm, partly for the sake
of the variety, but also in order to produce
special effects. Some such effects are fairly
obvious and will be found generalised in ancient
and modern treatises, like Horace's Ars Poetica
and Pope's Essay on Criticism :
" When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw
The line too labours and the words move slow, &c."
Other effects can only be recognized when the
poet's artistic sense has achieved them. Thus
36 Expression in Poetry.
in Tennyson's Idylls of the King, we have, on
the ground-plan of his unrhymed five-accent
line, effects as markedly different as the follow-
ing, in each of which the rhythm helps to
express the action described :
" So dark a forethought roll'd about his brain,
As on a dull day in an Ocean cave
The blind wave feeling round his long sea-hall
" Gareth loosed the stone
From off his neck ; then in the mere beside
Tumbled it; oilily bubbled up the mere."
Almost any page of Paradise Lost will supply
examples of greater or less subtlety. There is
an easy contrast for instance between the de-
scription of Satan's mounting to the roof of
Hell, where the rhythm is almost dactylic :
" Some times
He scours the right-hand coast, some times the left,
Now shaves with level wing the deep, then soars
Up to the fiery concave, towering high."
and the succession of strong accents in the de-
scription of his flight down to the earth from
Expression in Poetry. 37
"Down right into the world's first region throws
His flight precipitant and winds with ease
Through the pure marble air his oblique ray
Amongst innumerable stars,"
while the rhythm follows with even more de-
licate faithfulness the other motions described.
2. A second great means employed by
English poetry to express emotion is rhyme.
Rhyme, as much as metre, is a mode of
heightening expression, a stimulant to the at-
tention. Attempts have been made from time
to time to abandon the use of rhyme alto-
gether, as a relic of barbarism. Campion, who
himself used rhyme to delightful effect, wrote
a treatise to prove its " unaptness for poesy";
and even Milton in his old age wrote a preface
to his epic in which he disparaged it, not only
as a " troublesome bondage in heroic poem,"
which no doubt it is ; and not only as " the
invention of a barbarous age to set off wretched
matter and lame metre," as perhaps it was ; but
as " a thing of itself to all judicious ears trivial,
and of no true musical delight." Thus the
38 Expression in Poetry.
author of Paradise Lost turned his back on
the author of Lycidas. And yet still later in
his life Milton's true poetic instinct once more
vindicated rhyme against this critical judgment
by using it to " set off metre," that was far from
lame, in the choruses of Samson.
" All is best, though we oft doubt
What th' unsearchable dispose
Of highest wisdom brings about
And ever best found in the close.
Oft he seems to hide his face
But unexpectedly returns,
And to his faithful champion hath in place
Bore witness gloriously whence Gaza mourns,
And all that band them to resist
His uncontrollable intent.
His servants he with new acquist
Of true experience from this great event
With peace and consolation hath dismist
And calm of mind, all passion spent."
Is the rhyme in this fine passage otiose and
trivial ? No one can fail to observe what variety
it lends to the chorus by ringing the changes
on all the chief vowel sounds, or how it marks
sections of the thought ; first the text, then the
illustration, then the moral. The second sec-
Expression in Poetry. 39
tion, indeed, runs on into the third quatrain of
rhymes ; but by that slight irregularity the ode
is bound together, and the ear kept on the alert,
until the full close, for the chime that is sure to
3. These things, then, metre and rhyme,
being granted to the poet as two ingredients
of his magic cauldron, by means of which he
is to conjure up the mood or scene that he
desires to set before us, we come to the third,
his use of words, and proceed to enquire whether
there are any principles governing the use of
language peculiar to poetry. Here it must be
remembered that all a critic can do is to analyse
more or less successfully what methods have
actually been employed by this poet and that
for the production of their effects. There is
no one poetic method, just as there is no sepa-
rate poetic vocabulary. Every new poet will
achieve his new result in a new way, which he
will find the easier and also the harder for the
enterprise of his predecessors. There are, how-
4O Expression in Poetry.
ever, two or three artistic principles of universal
application which call for notice. The first is,
that the poem must have an atmosphere of its
own ; or, to change the metaphor, the words
must be all in the same key. Now, no mere
poetical joinery can achieve such a result as
this. Unless the words are generated by
" thoughts that breathe," they will have no life
in them, and no natural and inevitable relation
to each other. For an example, take a quatrain
from Gray's beautiful sonnet upon his friend
" These ears, alas ! for other notes repine ;
A different object do these eyes require ;
My lonely anguish melts no heart but mine,
And in my breast the imperfect joys expire."
These lines were chosen by Wordsworth in his
famous Preface to point the moral that the
language of poetry differs in no respect from
that of prose when it is well written. The
moral they really point is a different one. Their
tone is unique ; it is unlike that of any other
elegy in the language. The poet's instinct has
Expression in Poetry. 41
guided him securely to express his own special
emotion, and to avoid any word " of dissonant
mood from his complaint." Whether the words
might be classed as prosaic or poetical he has
not stopped to enquire. If a poetaster had been
writing the sonnet, he would have avoided what
would have seemed to him so tame an ex-
pression as " the imperfect joys expire." But
how absolutely right it is, in its place and for
its purpose. Again, what but genius could have
conceived the reticence of the two epithets
"other" and "different"? It should be clear,
then, that one principle governing the use of
words in poetry is that every poem must have
an atmosphere of its own ; it must be in a
definite mode, to which the poet's emotion will
guide him surely. The poet's passion may be any
one of a myriad moods, for the heart of man is
infinite, and the special quality of the particular
passion will show itself in the quality of the words.
We shall feel it in them, even though we are not
able to describe it. When people say " this is
42 Expression in Poetry.
genuine poetry," what they often mean is that
a passionate mood has succeeded, by the poet's
instinct, in condensing itself into words, and in
reading the words they distinguish the passion.
Consider, for a second example, a stanza in
Wordsworth's Solitary Reaper:
" Will no one tell me what she sings ?
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago."
If we take these lines to pieces, we may be
tempted to say it is the prosiest verse ever
written ; " old," " unhappy," " far-off," are words
of an everyday vocabulary, and " Will no one
tell me what she sings?" might almost occur
in any drawing-room conversation. But if we
are content not to take the passage to pieces,
if we are content to receive it and let it make
its own impression as a whole, we must acknow-
ledge it to be a perfect rendering of the effect
on the poet's mind of the wild, vague, sad
Highland music. A good proof of poetical
Expression in Poetry. 43
adequacy is that such lines cannot be para-
It is an interesting experience to take up
a Shakespeare and remark how the speeches,
apart from their merely grammatical sense, are
all pitched in a certain key, and make on us
the impression of a definite mood. Take, for
an instance, the familiar lines of Demetrius in
A Midsummer Night's Dream, after the troubles
and misunderstandings of the night are over and
he is looking back upon them :
" These things seem small and undistinguishable,
Like far-off mountains turned into clouds."
The mere grammatical sense, if the words were
paraphrased, would not be striking, but the words
themselves convey who can tell how? the
wondering reverie of a man still only half
awake*. It is even more interesting to study
* It is noticeable that those short passages in which
Shakespeare describes a sunrise all take colour from the circum-
stances of the dramatis persona. Shakespeare has not a pigeon-
hole for sunrises from which he draws indiscriminately at need.
To the ghost in Hamlet the morning comes as the twilight of
44 Expression in Poetry.
with the same view the pictures of landscape in
the works of the great masters. Landscape, of
course, is far from being a fixed quantity. The
poet, indeed, paints what he sees ; but that means
he paints what he sees ; and in painting he paints
his own mood, even though he does not neces-
sarily mean to do so. How definite is the mood
of the concluding passage of Keats' Ode to
A utumn :
" Hedge-crickets sing, and now, with treble soft,
The redbreast whistles from a garden croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies."
The tone of the words is of a somewhat meagre
joy. All the verbs contain the vowel i, the
thinnest of vowels. The poet seems to say :
" The glory of the year is departing, but it is
not yet gone, let us make the best of what
night, which is his day, and so he expresses it by reference to the
paling light of the glow-worm :
"The glow-worm shews the matin to be near,
And 'gins to pale his uneffectual fire."
A remarkable contrast to the lively image of Horatio :
"But look, the morn in russet mantle clad
Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastern hill ! "
Expression in Poetry. 45
remains." He does not say that ; he gives but
a hint of it in the gathering of the swallows,
and for the rest sings the best Jubilate he can.
But the mood is unmistakable. Contrast with
it as celebrated a picture of Autumn, that by
Crabbe, at the end of Delay has Danger:
" He saw the wind upon the water blow ;
Far to the left he saw the huts of men,
Half hid in mist that hung upon the fen ;
Before him swallows, gathering for the sea,
Took their short flights, and twittered on the lea ;
And near the bean-sheaf stood, the harvest done,
And slowly blackened in the sickly sun."
There is only one epithet there which very
definitely fixes the key of the passage, the epithet
"sickly"; and I am not sure that it does not
a little force the note, and spoil the harmony.
Apart from that there is nothing ; and yet the
mood is unmistakable. It is a mood of deep
dejection. You can hear it in every line, even
in such a line as
"He saw the wind upon the water blow,"
which contains no epithet, and yet makes you
shiver. I need not, perhaps, further illustrate
46 Expression in Poetry.
this first principle, that given a mood of emotion,
it can and will find means of expressing itself
It may, however, be well to illustrate the
fact that the poet's instinct may not always
secure the most adequate expression at the first
attempt. In Trinity College, Cambridge, there
is preserved a manuscript of certain of Milton's
minor poems which shows that he achieved
some of his most consummate results by a series
of experiments, each bringing him nearer to his
goal. One of the most marvellous lines in the
Comus comes in a passage where the Lady lost
in the dark wood falls a prey to vague midnight
fancies, and says :
"A thousand fantasies
Begin to throng into my memory
Of calling shapes, and beckoning shadows dire,
And airy tongues that syllable men's names
On sands and shores and desert wildernesses."
For the line in italics Milton had originally
written "And airy tongues that lure night-
wanderers"; but how vastly better did his
Expression in Poetry. 47
second thoughts convey his sense. "Syllable"
is a word exquisitely fitted for his purpose.
Being pure sound, it suggests the idea of words
being uttered that are mere sounds, words said
by " airy tongues " with no intelligence behind
them, words said clearly and carefully as by
a child who does not know the meaning of what
he is saying. The manuscripts of Shelley and
Coleridge tell a like tale. And even where
manuscripts are not to be had, it is often possible,
by comparing the several editions of a poem, to
see how, by a slight touch here and there, the
poet has succeeded in conveying his meaning
to us more perfectly. Let me give two examples
from Tennyson. In the first edition of the
Princess, the first line of that exquisite song,
" Home they brought her warrior dead," appeared
as " Home they brought him, slain with spears."
Clearly the poet perceived that he had been
trying to convey too much : the kind of battle
in which the warrior fell was really unimportant
for his purpose ; the important fact was the fact
48 Expression in Poetry.
of death. So he moved the word dead to the
most emphatic place in the line, and implied
the death in battle by the word warrior. The
other example I would adduce is the first line
of Tithonus, which, when it first appeared in the
Corn/till Magazine, ran :
"Ay me, ay me, the woods decay and fall."
This was subsequently altered into its present
"The woods decay, the woods decay, and fall,"
a much better line under the circumstances ;
because the repetition of the clause " the woods
decay " creates a pause before the words " and
fall," which are the words of most emphasis, and
are thus thrown into greater prominence. Titho-
nus, too, had decayed, like the leaves ; unlike
them, he could not come altogether to an end.
It is interesting also to notice that while some
poets are thus able to recollect their emotion
and improve by revision the expression of it,
others totally lack this power. A striking in-
stance was William Morris.
Expression in Poetry. 49
A second great artistic principle in the
poetical use of language is the axiom laid down
by Coleridge that a poet should " paint to the
imagination"; by which is meant that the poet
should never, in describing objects, labour to
accumulate detail, but find some way of summon-
ing up his picture before our eyes at a stroke.
This principle, coming from a poet, reminds one,
to compare great things with small, of the ex-
planations given by conjurors of their tricks.
" That," they say, " is how it's done." How to
do it is a different matter. But that it is really
done so, we may convince ourselves by taking
examples. Matthew Arnold among the touch-
stones of poetry, to which I have already referred,
included those lines of Milton about the Rape of
"Which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world."
Who but a poet of the first rank would have
dared that simple touch, " all that pain " ; how
effective it is upon the mind of the instructed
50 Expression in Poetry.
reader, for whom alone Milton wrote ; what
accumulation of epithet could produce a tenth
part of the effect ? Whatever we have read in
old poets at once leaps to memory.
This principle of calling in the reader's
imagination to fill out the poet's outline helps
us to understand why poets are so ready to
compare one thing with another. The process
is a kind of hypnotism ; the poet makes a
suggestion and the reader at once sees the
picture*. A simple and very effective instance
is Tennyson's comparison of the pallor of the
wounded King's face to the fading moon
"All his face was white
And colourless, and like the wither'd moon
Smote by the fresh beam of the springing East."
The painting of landscape in the poetry of
* It is not merely physical resemblances that are best
indicated by imagery. Thoughts and sentiments are often
poetically enforced by a comparison, which in pure reason is not
to the point.
' ' Weep no more, nor sigh, nor groan,
Sorrow calls no time that's gone;
Violets plucked the sweetest rain
Makes not fresh or grow again."
Expression in Poetry.
this century owes a great deal to this illustrative
method. It is plain that the most painful and
literal accuracy could not give the picture of
autumn leaves driven before the wind so fully
and effectively as Shelley's fine image
" Like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,"
or the picture of the sudden thrusting and
thronging of spring buds in hedgerows and
garden beds so well as another image in the
" Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air."
In still higher poetry we may see the principle
at work in such a piece as Shakespeare's seventy-
third sonnet :
" That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare, ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day,
As, after sunset, fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
52 Expression in Poetry.
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long."
The root-thought in this sonnet is that the
coming on of age makes the friend's love
stronger, because the time is short. The picture
of age is brought before us, however, not directly,
but by three pictorial comparisons : first, to the
dying of the year, then to the dying of each day,
then to the dying down of a fire ; each supplying
some vivid detail which applies with special
poignancy to the lover's case and the first
especially reminding us by reference to the
" ruined choirs " that the aged lover is also the
In conclusion, it may be noted that there
are certain qualities of individual words of which
poets, above all other writers, are careful to take
advantage. The poet is alive to the associa-
tions of words. In the line quoted above from
"A different object do these eyes require,"
Expression in Poetry. 53
it is plain that the word require is used with
a reminiscence of such a Virgilian line as
"Amissos longo socios sermone requirmit"
and brings with it the wistfulness of the Latin.
Milton and Tennyson are especially happy in
such learned use of words. Further, the poet
can, and constantly does, take advantage of the
actual sound of the words themselves. The
device of alliteration has passed in English from
being part of the mechanism of all poetry, an
initial rhyme, into a means of producing special
effects ; effects as various as the quality of the
several letters. It needs no enforcing that in
such a phrase as Milton's
" Behemoth, biggest born of earth,"
the repeated effort to form the labial helps the
imagination to an impression of bigness, while in
another line of his
"The world of waters wide and deep,"
or " wallowing unwieldy," the open effect of the
three w's helps the all-abroadness of the idea.
54 Expression in Poetry.
So liquids minister to a verse of their liquidity,
and sibilants can soothe a verse to sleep as well
as a child. What goes commonly by the name of
onomatopoeia is a step beyond this. Here actual
sounds in nature are more or less suggested.
Some words, such as murmuring, are themselves
onomatopoeic in origin ; others have come to be
so by chance, or are compelled into such service
by the poet. Examples are drizzling, trickling,
tumbling, noise, cry, all of which are to be found
in the stanza of the Faerie Queene describing the
cave of Morpheus.
"And more to lull him in his slumber soft,
A trickling stream from high rock tumbling down,
And ever-drizzling rain upon the loft,
Mixt with a murmuring wind, much like the sown
Of swarming bees, did cast him in a swoun ;
No other noise, nor people's troublous cries,
As still are wont to annoy the walled town,
Might here be heard ; but careless Quiet lies
Wrapt in eternal silence far from enemies."
Beyond onomatopoeia, again, we have in certain
poets, but by no means all, the power of sug-
gesting by words not sound only but motion.
Expression in Poetry. 55
Keats succeeds occasionally in this sort of cine-
matographic effect, e.g., in his description of a
gust of wind coming and going.
" Save for one gradual solitary gust,
Which comes upon the silence and dies off
As if the ebbing air had but one wave."
Much of the effect of this passage is due to the
emphatic monosyllable " comes," which gives
the impression of suddenness. Keats puts it
to much the same service in his description of
the moon breaking from a cloud. And much of
the effect of Tennyson's Crossing the Bar, one
of his most admirable pictures of motion, depends
upon the monosyllabic verbs.
" May there be no moaning of the bar
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep
Too full for sound or foam,
When that which drew out of the boundless deep,
Turns again home."
I will conclude with a passage, written by
one who was himself a master of the poetic
craft, analysing the suggestiveness of the sound
effects in a couplet of Coleridge's Christabel:
56 Expression in Poetry.
"The brands were flat, the brands were dying,
Amid their own white ashes lying."
" Here the cold vowels a, i, o are the only
ones which are openly sounded, and of these
a is repeated five times, and i three times, the
e in the short the preceding, as it does, the long
syllable brand is scarcely heard ; the ear is
wholly occupied with the eight cold vowels
which occur in the long syllables of the eight
feet that constitute these lines. The only effect
of warmth is a very slight one, produced by the
rapid succession of the consonants b, r and n, d
in the word brand. Again, there is an effect of
weight conveyed by the word brand, and to this
effect we are invited to attend, by the repetition
of it, and by the first juxtaposition and contrast
of this word with other words conveying the
notion of softness and lightness : finally the
two ideas of lightness and weight are united,
and the effect completed by the word amid, in
which the sound passing through the soft m and
its indistinct vowels, concludes in a heavy d;
Expression in Poetry. 57
and completes to a delicate ear and a prepared
mind, the entire picture of the weighty and
smouldering brands, sunken through the light
mass of ashes which remains after their undis-
* Coventry Patmore in a review of Tennyson's Princess,
quoted in Patmore's Life, i. 106.
CAMBRIDGE: PRINTED BY j. AND c. F. CLAY, AT THE UNIVERSITY PRESS.